The FDA has recently detected the carcinogen in frequently-used skin products.

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It can be hard to keep up with all of the food and skin product recalls out there, but for anyone who has noticed the recent news around various sunscreens and hand sanitizers, there seems to be one term that has popped up again and again in the past year: benzene. Here's the lowdown on the carcinogenic chemical, and why you especially do not want it to be in your sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and beyond.

What Is Benzene
Credit: Getty Images/Ake Dynamic

What is benzene?

Benzene has been referred to as a "cancer-causing chemical," because exposure to high amounts (or small amounts consistently over a long period of time) can cause cells to work incorrectly and has been linked to causing irregularity in red blood cells and bone marrow, according to the CDC. Additionally, high amounts of exposure in the air has been linked to leukemia. 

Benzene can be found in outdoor air as a result of tobacco smoke, gas stations, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions, as well as indoor air as a result of glues, paints, and other chemical-containing products. It can also be linked to leaks from hazardous waste sites into water supply. 

Most importantly to note here: Benzene, a known human carcinogen, can be absorbed through the skin, and it is not (and never should be) an ingredient used in any product like sunscreen or hand sanitizer.

How does benzene get into sunscreen and hand sanitizer?

It all comes back to the production. During the process of manufacturing, benzene can contaminate products on a batch-to-batch basis, which means there is never necessarily one brand to single out and avoid at all times. Though, here are some recent sunscreens to know that have been recalled, as well as certain brands of hand sanitizers to avoid. While detected benzene levels were found to be relatively low (but above the FDA limit of two parts per million) in certain batches of sunscreens and hand sanitizers, the main concern of many doctors is about how consistent use and absorption into skin can lead to harmful long-term effects, particularly since these two categories are meant to be used on a daily basis. The issue also points to the need for more regulation employed in the industry as a whole. 

Manufacturers and factories should always enforce strict contamination and quality protocols to prevent known human carcinogens like benzene from polluting products made in the facility. To further combat the issue, the FDA can test products to determine if harmful chemical levels are present, and the recent recalls have flagged the need for broadening the market scope for regular testing. 

The best thing you can do? Purchase products from vetted brands (preferably clean brands), as well as keep an eye out for any news pertaining to benzene recalls.